Scripps, IBM to create virus models

BOCA RATON, Fla.—The Scripps Research Institute and IBM will collaborate to advance research on pandemic viruses

Chris Anderson
BOCA RATON, Fla.—The Scripps Research Institute and IBM in mid-February announced the formation of a collaborative research project whose intent is to conduct advanced research on pandemic viruses with the ultimate goal of creating models of that will help health officials worldwide to anticipate and contain infectious diseases.
 
Dubbed "Project Check-Mate", the collaboration will leverage the computing power of IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer and Scripp's new biomedical research facility, Scripps Florida, based here. The research effort, expected to last a number of years, will not be exclusive to the two organizations, however, as other leaders in a variety of fields are expected to join the effort in the coming months.
 
"The work we will be doing is so important that we know we will need a core team of scientists, experts in a number of different areas so that we may eventually predict the evolution of a virus," says Nick Tsinoremas, senior director of informatics, Scripps Florida. "If we can predict the likelihood of mutations we can see the type that could cause a pandemic and we can prepare for it."
 
While any possible results from this work are likely years away, the project has the potential to change how world health bodies would prepare for flu viruses.
 
"If you look at the present model for treating infectious disease, the vaccines are primarily developed from strains you have already seen at the end of the flu season," says Ajay Royyuru, senior manager, computational biology center, IBM Research. "It's really more of an educated guess on what the dominant flu strains will be next year. The goal is to identify the fewest possible while still being effective."
 
Project Check-Mate aims to turn that model on its head. Instead of today's more static approach, researchers hope eventually to be able to predict the path of mutations in viruses over time and, in turn, be able to use this information to proactively design antibodies and vaccines that directly target these specific mutations.
 
"Advances in computational biology, genomics, biological technology and antibodies together are what makes it possible to begin this research," says Tsinoremas. "We have known that by the time next season came around the virus would be mutated and that by the end of this season the virus would have changed so much for the vaccine to be ineffective. What we have really needed to be more effective is to predict the pattern of mutation and now we believe we can."
 
Both Tsinoremas and Royurru know the research will require contributions from a broad swath of researchers in the infectious disease field. To that end, the first organizational meeting of the collaborators is schedule for the end of this month, at which time Scripps, IBM and other interested researchers will plot specific areas of focus for early research.
 
Later this year, Tsinoremas expects to conduct a proof-of-concept study that will serve as a springboard for attracting more collaborators as well as additional funding to sustain the project in the coming years.
 
For Royurru, this project is about more than what he and his IBM colleagues can learn to improve Blue Gene and other research areas where this knowledge can be applied, it is also about leaving a legacy.
"It will probably take years and years and the efforts of many people," he says. "But if we do this right, if we can figure out and predict how these viruses behave, then we will have a way to effectively deal with emerging infectious diseases."

Chris Anderson

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